Feature

Aston Mack: My story

Aston Mack with Martin Odegaard

During the Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, one image in particular from a march in Florida captured the public’s attention.

Aston Mack, the founder of the Orlando Freedom Fighters, chose to wear his Arsenal shirt to the protest march in his hometown, because he says he knew it would give him strength.

It’s an indication of the power of football and more specifically, Arsenal. So on the launch of our new away shirt over two years on in Orlando, we spoke to Aston, who told us all about his relationship with the club, and what being a Gooner means to him…

I’m going to tell you something that a lot of people don’t want to hear: as an American there’s not a day that goes by when I’m not reminded that I’m Black.

That’s just the truth. That’s how it is. I wake up and see Confederate flags down the street from me every single day. But every time I wear this jersey, this Arsenal jersey, and every time I walk into any group of Gooners: not a thing.

Nobody is ever bothered about how I look, the colour of my skin, my race, my gender – anything. The only thing that matters is the badge on my chest and they treat me with respect, with care, with comradery and that’s how it is.

We’re a family, and there’s no greater family than Arsenal. That doesn’t happen with other clubs.

That day of the Black Lives Matter protest, I was teargassed. I saw cops pepper spray 12-year-olds kids. I saw it all.

This was the first protest I had ever been at, and people spoke about my bravery or strength but I talk about my fear. I mean I was scared. I was scared out of my mind.

So I thought ‘who’s got my back? Who do I know in this mob of random people? How can I make sure I’m safe?’ So it’s a weird thing to think about, but I just knew if I had that Arsenal jersey on, somebody would grab me and help me if I was being hurt.

If I needed something, a ride, somewhere to go, help in a situation – that jersey guarantees that somebody would take care of me, because that’s what the badge means. You take care of your own.

Aston Mack with the Arsenal squad

So why am I an Arsenal fan in the first place? This guy who lives thousands of miles from London? The answer is simple. It’s because we’re the biggest club that plays the best football in the world.

I get a lot of stick because I’m an American fan and I get it. We didn’t grow up getting beaten up at school because of what jersey we wear. But I think there’s a bit of purity to it, like I could have chosen any club.

I tried to do that in fact. The only reason I got into soccer was through my friend, playing soccer video games, and he was an Arsenal fan. So because he was Arsenal, I tried to pick a different team.

I went for Chelsea, but then I actually started watching soccer, and I immediately stopped liking Chelsea. This was in around 2009, 2010 and every time I watched Arsenal play, I loved what I saw.

It was beauty. It was art. It just seemed like we were always trying to win the right way. We weren’t trying just to lump the ball forward, we actually wanted to play. We looked to play attractive football at all times in the game.

It’s the most admirable thing I had seen in the sport. And then Arsène Wenger opened his mouth and that was enough for me. Arsenal were the club for me.

So I started watching the games, and I really liked Aaron Ramsey at the time. I was young and thought I knew better than anyone else, so when we first had Ramsey, and nobody appreciated him, I was really into him. So you can imagine how pleased I was when I was proved right! Watching him grow into the star of the team was amazing for me.

When I first got into it, it was me and my two friends, and a lot of people made fun of soccer – football – and said how can you watch it, it’s so boring. I just laughed. How can you say it’s boring when you watch American Football? That’s just commercials every two minutes, give me a break!

Then you go through a lot with the club emotionally. You suffer with the club, you win with the club. There’s a picture of me from 2014, on the stairs of a bar, crying because we are 2-0 down in the FA Cup final. Then when Cazorla makes it 2-1 there’s another image of me running out into the street screaming. You suffer together, you win together. That’s what it’s about.

2-0 down, 3-2 up. What a game. And then Ramsey gets the winner! I’ve always loved him, so I can’t explain what that moment meant to me, watching in an Irish bar in Orlando.

It was packed, wall-to-wall with Gooners. All of us. Well all of us except for the bar owner, who’s a Tottenham fan. It was hilarious to watch his face break as we won another trophy.

Aston Mack with William Saliba

Even though we are thousands of miles away, we feel a huge connection with the club. With no disrespect to any religion, Emirates Stadium is our Mecca. We all face the Emirates when Arsenal play, and it’s a pilgrimage that we all wish we can go on one day.

There’s no way that you can say that me and the guys who get a bar to open at 4am to watch a game aren’t passionate fans. We aren’t lucky enough to see the club in the flesh or go to the games. That’s a privilege held by the fans who got to build the club. And of course it’s those London-based fans who built the club, who made it what it is. The class that I’m taking about came from somewhere and it came from them.

Supporting Arsenal brings people together. It might happen in other sports, other teams, but not like at Arsenal.

Wherever I go, whatever city I am in, I can type in the words ‘where’s the local Arsenal bar?’ and I will be welcomed with open arms, hugs, cheers all the way because that’s what our fans are. Just like Arsenal are a different class on the pitch, our supporters are a different class off the pitch.

I used to think I was alone, trying to do my thing, do my work on my own. But since that image was taken of me on the BLM march, every day since for about two months, a different scarf from a different supporters’ club from a different part of the USA came in the post to me.

It reminded me that I am not alone. That we are together in this. They didn’t send it just because I love Arsenal, they sent it because they wanted to tell me we are together, there is solidarity. It helps you to go on.

Arsenal is a billion-dollar club. What other billion-dollar entity reaches out to a single individual the way they reached out to me? Our values transcend the sport that happens on the pitch.

That’s what Arsène Wenger used to say – that when 11 players are all on song together it transcends sport and becomes art. That art can knit humanity together, make us all closer. That’s what he did with the club, and that’s the legacy he left with the fans who support the club now.

It gives me hope, but as big as Arsenal is - and our fanbase is gigantic - but the United States is vast. The government and powers that be have much bigger strength than Arsenal. Arsenal is the little guy in that picture.

But I have hope, because Arsenal is putting eyes on this. More people are seeing that solidarity can grow, and it can help turn the tide. Eventually those messages will reach the ivory towers, we keep going. And Arsenal being such a large institution itself, in relation to me, is evidence of that, because my words reached them and Arsenal listened to them.

Aston Mack with Emile Smith Rowe

With Arsenal visiting the USA this summer I was lucky enough to meet some of the players – Emile is hilarious by the way. They say don’t meet your heroes, but I disagree. If you don’t meet your heroes you don’t get to have a laugh with Emile. Meeting them went way above my expectations.

When the cameras turn off, they don’t change. They are who they are, and I love being part of that family. The Arsenal family. The greatest family in the world.

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